by Barbara Beckley | January 01, 2017

With phenomenal scenery and out-of-the-ordinary conference facilities, Alaska and Western Canada continue to be wild, wonderful destinations that thrill attendees, boost creative thinking and promise maximum event attendance.

"Absolutely, natural beauty played a role in choosing Vancouver (British Columbia)," said Karen Verhey, director of operations and events for the Society for College & University Planning. "I was blown away by the natural beauty embedded in the city itself and the LEED-certified convention center."

Grant Hilderbrand, co-chair of the recent International Conference on Bear Research & Management, knew his attendees would be eager to meet in Alaska, home to three of the world's eight species of bears. And for Larry Hinzman, the picturesque landscapes of Fairbanks and an abundance of attractions made it an ideal host of the 2016 Arctic Science Summit Week. "We had more than 1,000 participants, and many brought their spouses and children to make it an extended vacation," he said.

Alaska: The Great Northern Escape

The International Conference on Bear Research & Management was held in Anchorage at the 200,000-square-foot Dena'ina Civic & Convention Center, with the nearby Hilton serving as its headquarters hotel. Other events that have been held in Anchorage recently include the U.S. Academic Decathlon National Finals and the Adventure Travel World Summit.

Recent upgrades at the Dena'ina Center and a comprehensive remodel of the 85,000-square-foot Egan Center mean even better service for future groups. Upgrades specific to the Dena'ina Center include a 90-inch, high-definition video screen which brings Alaska's scenery and wildlife inside and can be customized as a welcome/informational sign for attendees, and four new kiosks provide details on the center's art installations.

In Midtown, the Embassy Suites by Hilton/Anchorage has followed suit and just completed a top-to-bottom redo. Other venues that regularly welcome events include Sullivan Arena, with concert seating for up to 8,700 or space for up to 220 trade-show booths. The Alaska Native Heritage Center, set on 26 acres, offers catering for up to 200. Still other choices include the Bear Tooth Theatrepub, the Alaska Aviation Museum and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. About 45 miles southeast, in Portage, the new Bison Hall at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is expected to open this year with 3,840 square feet of multipurpose space.

Fairbanks just may be as close to the wilderness a group can get and still enjoy excellent accommodations and meeting facilities. Delegates to the prestigious Arctic Science Summit Week last March were definitely impressed. "People just did not realize the capabilities and facilities that Fairbanks and the University of Alaska/Fairbanks had. And what a wonderful place Fairbanks is for a winter visit," said Larry Hinzman, vice-president of the International Arctic Science Committee and the summit organizer.

"Fairbanks has a large number of really interesting facilities, events and tours that were of interest to our participants," Hinzman said. Organizers took advantage of the Centennial Theater in Pioneer Park, the Large Animal Research Station, the Carlson Center and the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center. Excursions and activities also included the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Permafrost Tunnel Tour, ice sculptures, dog mushing and storytelling.

Smaller groups that have held events in Fairbanks recently include the Alaska Library Association and the Alaska Miners Association. Many convene at the Wedgewood Resort, the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel & Conference Center and the Chena Hot Springs Resort, the latter featuring geothermal tours and the Aurora Ice Museum, created from ice and snow. New offerings include La Quinta Inn & Suites (formerly the Alpine Lodge), with meeting space for up to 150, and the 103-room Candlewoods Suites.

The capital city of Juneau is gearing up to host two big meetings in the first half of this year: The Arctic Council's Senior Arctic Officials will meet in March while the Western Association of State Highway Transportation Officials will hold their gathering in June. The Arctic Council event will be held at the Centennial Hall Convention Center, which offers 17,000 square feet of flexible space. Other groups meeting in Juneau include the Alaska State Fire Chiefs, the Alaska Bar Association and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

Two facilities that celebrate Alaska history and heritage have opened recently in Juneau: the State Library, Archives and Museum, which opened last June, and the Walter Soboleff Center, which opened in June 2015. The city is also working on the next phase of the seawalk, which eventually will connect all of the downtown waterfront and offer spectacular views of the harbor.

This month, the Goldbelt Hotel is completing a renovation and a name change to the Four Points by Sheraton/Juneau. The Prospector Hotel, which offers an on-site restaurant and bar that can be used for private events, has also completed a renovation.

British Columbia: Picture Perfect

When the Society for College & University Planning held its annual international conference in Vancouver in July, it drew an estimated 1,500 attendees and was held at the 466,500-square-foot, platinum LEED-certified Vancouver Convention Centre. "The Vancouver Convention Centre sets the bar for excellence, optimally supports the behind-the-scenes needs of planners and creates a high-energy (environment) for attendees," Karen Verhey said. The Pacific Coast setting-perched between Vancouver Harbor and the Coast Mountains-also won over attendees. "What a view!" was the most frequently heard comment, she said. Other major events that have been held in Vancouver recently include the International Conference on Obesity, with nearly 1,000 attendees, and the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, with more than 6,500 attendees.

Off-site and unique event venues are as plentiful as the trees in the surrounding forests. Large examples include the 54,500-seat BC Place; Rogers Arena, home to the NHL's Canucks, with an array of spaces for up to 3,300 people; and the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. For something more cultural, the recently refreshed Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art is just a few blocks from the convention center and can host up to 200.

Several high-end hotels with meeting space are scheduled to open this year. The 147-room Trump International Hotel & Tower is set to open soon with 15,000 square feet of meeting space. And adjacent to BC Place, the 329-room JW Marriott/parq Vancouver and the 188-room Douglas, an Autograph Collection Hotel, are scheduled to open in September with shared event space for up to 1,799 people. A notable feature of the Douglas will be a 30,000-square-foot "elevated urban forest" with indoor-outdoor dining and fire pits. There are new meeting spaces at the Wedgewood Hotel & Spa and the Westin Bayshore and renovated event space at the Pinnacle/Vancouver Harbourfront and the OPUS Hotel.

Vancouver's foodie scene is ideal for gatherings. One of the newest venues is the TWG Tea Boutique, which opened last month with space for up to 100. With the great outdoors so near, Verhey's attendees took an architectural bike ride. Delegates can also cycle through 1,000-acre Stanley Park. In North Vancouver, the Capilano Suspension Bridge is a popular attraction, and a park on its north side can host events of up to 800.

Delegates flying in will most likely land in Richmond, home to Vancouver International Airport and several nearby hotels. The Fairmont/Vancouver Airport, situated above the U.S. departures terminal, has meeting space for up to 140. Other nearby options include the Pacific Gateway Hotel, with 24 meeting rooms, and the connected Sheraton/Vancouver Airport, Hilton/Vancouver Airport (renovated last year) and Vancouver Airport Marriott Hotel, which can provide a block of 850 guest rooms and 60,000 square feet of meeting space.

British Columbia's capital city is Victoria. Its most iconic property is the Fairmont Empress Hotel, which is attached to the 73,000-square-foot Victoria Conference Centre. Now under new ownership, the hotel is undergoing an extensive two-year renovation that is expected to be fully complete in June. Two blocks away, the Hotel Grand Pacific is newly renovated.

Going east, the interior landscape of British Columbia beckons with fruit-laden orchards, vineyards, lakes and grasslands. One of the more well-known destinations is Kamloops, which in recent years has hosted the Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth Gathering, the Freemasons Annual Communication and the Canadian Society of Soil Science Annual Meeting. Dedicated events facilities include the Coast Kamloops Hotel & Conference Centre, with function space for up to 800; Thompson Rivers University, with 30,000 square feet of meeting space; and the South Thompson Inn & Conference Center, with event space for up to 200. In early 2017, a new Wingate by Wyndham is set to open with a small amount of meeting space.

Kelowna is the region's largest city, with some 127,000 residents and an international airport. Abundant conference space and 4,500 hotel rooms have made it a hit with groups such as Farm Credit Canada, the Appraisal Institute of Canada, the Canadian Partnership for Quality Radiotherapy and Airports Council International.

Prince William and Kate also visited in September, stopping in at the University of British Columbia/Okanagan and the Mission Hill Winery (both of which have meeting facilities). Large facilities include the university's Okanagan Conference Centre, with 35,000 square feet of space and the 7,000-seat Prospera Place Arena.

Two new wineries opened last year in West Kelowna and welcome groups. The Indigenous World Winery is the world's first 100 percent Native American-owned winery. A mile away, the Grizzli Winery offers a range of Canadian icewines and four tasting rooms.

Thirty miles north, in Vernon, the Sparkling Hill Resort is owned by the patriarch of the Swarovski crystal family, and it was designed to literally sparkle, with more than a million crystals incorporated into the design.

Forty miles south of Kelowna, the Spectra-managed Penticton Trade & Convention Centre in Penticton offers more than 60,000 square feet of meeting space. An additional 30,000 square feet of meeting space is available at the 5,000-seat South Okanagan Events Centre. A mile away, the Penticton Lakeside Resort is adding 70 new guest rooms (for a total of 273) and expanding its meeting space this year.

Down near the international border, in Osoyoos, top venues for meetings include the Spirit Ridge at NK'MIP Resort, which has conference space for up to 300. Another option is the Watermark Beach Resort & Conference Centre, which has space for up to 225. Associations that have met in the area include the British Columbia Wine Institute and the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada.

Groups that want to maximize attendance by holding an event in a raved-about mountain destination can't do much better than Whistler, nestled in the Coast Mountains just 75 miles north of Vancouver. It offers approximately 5,400 guest rooms in 24 hotels and some 5,000 additional bedrooms in chalets, bed-and-breakfast inns and townhouses.

Cultural venues that offer a sense of place include the new Audain Art Museum, which opened last March with event space for up to 250. The Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre also focuses on indigenous heritage and can welcome private gatherings of up to 900.

Alberta: Expanding Its Options

With wide-open spaces and the Canadian Rockies, Alberta is a land of inspiring contrasts. Calgary is a hopping destination each July when it hosts the annual Calgary Stampede. Getting there via air is now easier than ever as the much-anticipated new terminal of its international airport opened in the fall. With more passenger arrivals come more hotels. The 318-room Calgary Airport Marriott In-Terminal Hotel (formerly a Delta) debuted recently with meeting space for up to 630, and the 142-room Element/Calgary Airport is scheduled to open nearby on March 7 with 2,313 square feet of event space.

Calgary's main meeting venue is the 122,000-square-foot Calgary Telus Convention Center, along with neighboring Olympic Plaza. Also popular is Stampede Park, which can host thousands of attendees. The National Music Centre opened last fall in the East Village with a 300-seat performance hall and five other areas suitable for events.

Many delegates make pre- or post-event trips to the Rocky Mountain resort towns of Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper, each a couple of hours away. The idea will be particularly enticing this year as entrance to all of Canada's national parks is free in celebration of the nation's 150th anniversary.

In Banff, the expanded Sulphur Mountain gondola terminal building now features a rooftop deck, theater, restaurant and café, while the first new hotel to open in Banff National Park in nine years-the 174-room Moose Hotel & Suites-did so in July with two meeting rooms, a spa and two rooftop pools.  

The provincial capital of Edmonton also boasts new and exciting event venues: At Rogers Place, a silver LEED-certified, NHL arena with 18,641 seats, a giant enclosed pedway called Winter Garden that measures 24,000 square feet, connects the arena to the burgeoning, 25-acre Ice District and can be used for various events. Nearby is the Grand Villa Edmonton Casino, which opened in September. Future district additions include shops, restaurants and the JW Marriott/Edmonton, set to open in late 2018 with 25,000 square feet of event space.

Premier meeting venues in town are the 150,000-square-foot Shaw Convention Centre overlooking the North Saskatchewan River Valley and the Edmonton Expo Centre, with more than 522,000 square feet of contiguous space.

Natural adventure is just east of town in Elk Island National Park, where bison, moose, elk and deer roam free. Hiking, canoeing and close encounters with animals are available through the VIP backstage-pass program.

Meetings Au Naturel

From glistening coastal waters framed by dense forests to fruited plains backed by majestic mountains, the scenery is as beautiful as it gets in Western Canada and Alaska. It's a big reason why so many associations hold meetings in this corner of the world each year-but not the only one. Top-notch convention facilities, welcoming residents and activities that focus on exploration help create amazing events that serve as benchmarks for years to come.